Shota Imanaga could give Cubs Yoshinobu Yamamoto-level production at a fraction of the price

A brilliant MLB debut showcased all of Imanaga's strengths and raised expectations for what he could mean to this team for years to come.

Colorado Rockies v Chicago Cubs
Colorado Rockies v Chicago Cubs / Michael Reaves/GettyImages
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The home opener at Wrigley Field is a pseudo-holiday for many Chicago Cubs fans and the 40,000+ who braved the elements on Monday afternoon saw history from left-hander Shota Imanaga in his MLB debut.

Imanaga, 30, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, finishing the day with six scoreless frames and nine strikeouts in a record-setting outing. As our very own Jordan Campbell pointed out, expectations were probably a little muted heading into the start for a combination of reasons. The first is the fact that Imanaga piled up strikeouts but ran into his share of trouble in Cactus League action. The other isn't even his fault.

Cubs' Shota Imanaga has been overshadowed by Yoshinobu Yamamoto

Imanaga's jump from Japan to the U.S. this offseason was almost completely overshadowed by the free-agent pursuit of another NPB standout in Yoshinobu Yamamoto. The 25-year-old right-hander wound up signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a major piece of their free-spending $1+ billion offseason, landing a 12-year, $325 million contract despite never having thrown a pitch in MLB.

His results this spring against big league hitters were anything but encouraging: three starts spanning 9 2/3 innings, in which he allowed nine earned runs on 15 hits to go along with 14 punchouts. Then, he made his MLB debut in the Korea Series in late March against the Padres, but failed to get out of the first inning.

All of this no doubt had Cubs fans trying to keep their expectations for Imanaga in check before his debut on Monday. But last season's NPB strikeout king delivered in a big way, taking advantage of some brutal conditions for hitters and giving his team a much-needed dominant start, buoying a starting rotation that's already without Justin Steele and Jameson Taillon.

Yamamoto bounced back in a big way in his second start of the year, throwing five scoreless frames against St. Louis over the weekend, but now, the already-present comparisons between the two former Japanese standouts are only going to be ratcheted up moving forward. For the Cubs, the best-case scenario is simple: Imanaga matches Yamamoto blow-for-blow, despite being on a contract whose total value is about one-sixth that of the young righty.

Shota Imanaga has the potential to be one of the savviest free-agent signings in the long history of the Chicago Cubs

Now, obviously, age is a big factor here. Imanaga is five years older than Yamamoto, which explains the dramatic difference in the lengths of the respective contracts. Imanaga's deal, a four-year, $53 million pact has an option structure that could stretch the deal to $80 million over five years. But even in that scenario, the total dollar value is still only about a quarter of the Yamamoto mega-deal.

Now, Imanaga's debut went as well as humanly possible and, odds are, they're not all going to be like that. The league's hitters are going to adjust and he'll have to make tweaks of his own as the season goes on. But if he can tap into what the Cubs front office believes is his front-of-the-rotation potential and anchor the top of the staff, the impact for the team over the next half-decade could be massive.

His deal permits the Cubs to maintain their beloved financial flexibility, while also avoiding the weight that comes with a decade-plus-long deal. If Imanaga outproduces projections and he becomes that guy you pair with Steele atop the rotation, this deal could go down not as only one of the biggest free agent steals in Chicago Cubs history - but in the history of the game.

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